Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Building a Sugar Chest

A sugar chest is a southern piece of furniture, a small cabinet that was used in the eighteenth century to hold sugar and keep it locked up from servants and children who might partake of this valuable commodity.  In the north, they might have been called cellarettes and used to store liquor where it could be locked up.  Charles Neil periodically offers a class to build a sugar chest of his own design and last year I decided to take it and build one of my own. 

Charles Neil explains the construction process.
It was a three-day class (pictures here).  Charles and his helpers had prepared some of the pieces ahead of time and had pre-cut and dimensioned the tiger maple to nearly finished size in order to save building time.  But most of the work of cutting and assembling the piece was ours to do. 

We started by building the base, which incorporated tapered legs and openings for a drawer and pull-out shelf.  Then, using Charles' signature dovetail template, which uses special Whiteside bits with narrow necks to simulate hand-cut dovetails, we dovetailed the case.

Cutting the dovetails in the case.
The finished pieces, ready to finish.
 By the end of the three days, we each had an assembled base, a glued-up case body, a drawer, a shelf and a lid to take home and finish.

Finishing involved laying down a trace coat of brown dye, sanding to 120 grit with a random orbit sander, trace coating a second time and sanding to 180 grit, then staining the piece with a New England mixture of water based dye.  The trace coats let you see what needs to be sanded and, by soaking into the soft grain, it helps "pop" the curl in the maple.  

Finally, using a new Apollo spray gun I sprayed five coats of General Finishes High Performance satin water-based finish, scuffing lightly between coats and applying the last two coats in quick succession so they would bond together and create a tough top coat.  Finally, I buffed the piece with a slightly soapy solution using a random orbit sander and Abralon sanding pads, 2000 and 3000 grit, which left a buttery smooth satin finish on the piece.

The finished sugar chest.
The final step was to assemble the parts into a whole.  The result was spectacular.  I learned a lot in the process of building this piece and am proud to have it on display in my dining room.

Charles periodically offers this class.  If you are interested in taking the class, which is held at his New Market, Virginia, workshop, check his web site or contact him to let him know you are interested.  Charles also produced a DVD on building the sugar chest, but I believe it is now out of production.  However, it would be worth contacting him to see if he has any remaining copies.
Whatever you are building, have fun doing it!


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